Naypyidaw: Peace talks between Myanmar’s government and warring ethnic minorities open on Wednesday seeking to end decades of bloodshed and bring investment to Southeast Asia’s poorest country.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will give the opening address to hundreds of rebel leaders, lawmakers and military top brass gathered in the capital Naypyidaw.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s freshly minted government is seeking to reshape Myanmar as a federal democracy as the country emerges from decades of oppressive military rule.
The Nobel laureate has made bridging the ethnic fault lines that have fractured the country since independence a priority of her newly minted government, which took power in March.
The outcome could breathe new life into Myanmar’s economy as it struggles to emerge from half a century of exploitation and mismanagement by the former junta.
China, India and the West are vying for a share of the vast reserves of jade, tin and prized teak wood in its borderlands that have fuelled conflict with ethnic groups.
“Without peace there can be no sustained development,”
Suu Kyi said during a recent trip to Beijing seeking support for the talks.
Today’s meeting comes almost 70 years after her father, independence hero Aung San, signed a landmark agreement to devolve powers to some ethnic groups after independence.
The deal collapsed after he was assassinated, before Myanmar broke from Britain in 1948, but many hope Suu Kyi can revive that spirit at this week’s ’21st Century Panglong’ conference.
Still, few expect the coming days to be anything more than an opening salvo in a peace process that could take years.
Fresh fighting in Kachin and Shan states in the run up to the talks have shattered hopes for a unilateral ceasefire the organisers have been pushing.
Several rebel groups have failed to down weapons – a precondition for them to attend – and remain wary of the ethnic-Bamar central authorities.
Suu Kyi’s party, also Bamar, got surprisingly strong support from minority communities in November’s elections, winning around a third of the vote.
But privately, government negotiators say they are hamstrung by working with the army, which still controls borders, defence and a quarter of parliament seats.
Distrust of the Tatmadaw, as it is known, runs deep among minorities after decades of oppression, marked by torture, rape and mass killings.
Some 220,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Kachin, northern Shan and western Rakhine states, according to UN figures released this week.
The conference has nevertheless been hailed as an important first step and one loaded with symbolism in a nation emerging from a dark military past.
Ban described the conference as “an important first step” toward peace at a press conference on the eve of the talks.
“The steps you have taken towards national reconciliation need to be further strengthened, broadened and consolidated,” he told reporters.